Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hitting a Nuclear Roadblock

Hitting a Nuclear Roadblock

nuclear waste utah
A uranium tailings pile near Moab, Utah.
Peter Essick / Aurora / Getty

Steve Creamer wants to talk about saving the world. The CEO of EnergySolutions, a nuclear power cleanup and disposal company, says it's his personal mission to help usher in the "nuclear renaissance," an era he says is coming on the heels of the carbon emission dark ages. Creamer has spent the past three years amassing a near monopoly on low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) management in the U.S. His company now handles 99% of such waste, which includes contaminated clothing, equipment residue from reactor water and other materials. After acquiring eight companies and putting them under the Utah-based EnergySolutions umbrella, Creamer took the company public last November. Revenues for 2007 were just over $1 billion, but are expected to climb this year.

But Creamer's "renaissance" is the kind others don't want in their backyard. EnergySolutions had been, for the most part, operating under the national radar — until news of the company's plans to import 20,000 tons of LLRW from Italy hit the local Utah media late last year and the national media shortly afterward. EnergySolutions had hoped to process the waste at a Tennessee facility and deposit 1,600 tons of it into the company's radioactive waste landfill in Clive, Utah. But now a torrent of opposition has come up against that plan.

Local newspapers ran editorials opposing it. Utah Congressman Jim Matheson co-sponsored legislation that would stop LLRW importation altogether. And then came what may have been the deathblow. As public pressure mounted, Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who initially supported the plan, vowed to quash it. He ordered the state's representative to a multi-state compact that oversees LLRW disposal to vote against it. The company has since filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the compact does not have authority over the Utah landfill. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will ultimately approve or deny the application

EnergySolutions has invested heavily in reputation-building, including millions for naming rights to the basketball stadium that hosts the Utah Jazz. The company has also contributed to Senators and Congressman who wield power over the nuclear industry. EnergySolutions spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2007 and its political action committees have donated more than $145,000 to House and Senate campaigns since 2005. (The company has operations in South Carolina and its political action committees and employees have given at least $45,800 to that state's senior Senator Lindsey Graham since 2005.) In Utah, the EnergySolutions Inc. Fund for Effective Government contributed $5,000 to Matheson in the 2005-2006 cycle and $1,000 so far in the 2007-2008 cycle. That seems to have been for naught. Matheson now declares that EnergySolutions wants to make Utah a "dumping ground."

Creamer says EnergySolutions has no plans to import foreign LLRW "wholesale" from Europe and pledged to limit its foreign intake in Utah to 5% of the facility's capacity. Still, says EnergySolutions senior vice president Jill Sigal, "If there are isolated instances where we can help other countries... that's something that would have to be considered." That hedging is at odds with a recent annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that makes clear that the company defines its mission as a global enterprise. "Internationally, as countries endeavor to expand nuclear power generation, many seek to address the clean-up associated with legacy nuclear infrastructure. With our major presence in the U.S. and Europe we are in an excellent position to benefit from that trend." The report also says EnergySolutions' "business would suffer" if applications like the one in question were not granted.

EnergySolutions is not the first company to ask permission to bring waste into the U.S. In the past ten years, LLRW shipments have come in from Canada, Ukraine and Germany. The Italian shipment, however, would be several times larger than any that have come in before. EnergySolutions refused to say how much a contract for the Italian waste would be worth, and it's difficult to estimate, given that EnergySolutions would charge by the cubic foot, not by weight, and international rates for LLRW disposal vary widely.

EnergySolutions says there are no alternate sites for the Italian waste, which is why the company will exhaust all possibilities before giving up on its application, which cost $19,600 to file. The company hopes to open landfills for radioactive waste in Europe, profiting from what Creamer hopes will be a massive rollout of new nuclear power plants there and throughout the world. EnergySolutions has significant operations in Britain. About 50% of the company's revenues come from business in the U.K., where it manages 22 nuclear reactors, 18 of which are currently in the decommissioning phase. The waste from the decommissioning will remain in a landfill owned by the British government.

"It's been an amazing time, because three years ago when we started this, we thought we would build a company that would shut down the nuclear industry in America," he says, believing he'd make his money from the decommissioning of existing power plants. Then the business plan changed with global warming and the search for alternative, non-carbon based sources of power. Says Creamer: "Luck's better than skill any time."

Creamer now talks passionately about his belief that nuclear is the only option with enough potential to power the world. He stresses that cleaning up after nuclear power is the responsibility not just of individual countries, but the global community as a whole. He points to global warming. "If we burn up, it's not just going to be America that burns up — it's going to be the whole world that burns up, " he says. "We think the only way you're going to build new nuclear power plants is if we take the responsibility and the stewardship to take care of the past... If America's going to lead, we have to have a position in this industry." And leading the industry would be his Utah-based, world-reaching conglomerate. Now, Creamer just has to get that problem in Utah fixed.

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